Shortly before he died, Bruce Chatwin found God. This was on top of Mount Athos, after which he left for Katmandu. Looking down from the bees and grapes, he had seen an iron cross on a wet rock. “I had no idea,” he told his wife, Elizabeth. So he made time in his frenzied dying to hallucinate a Christos Pantokrator and convert to Greek Orthodoxy. The day after a memorial service for him in the Cathedral of St. Sophia in surprising Bayswater–where, as a matter of odd fact, a satanic Salman Rushdie first heard about the fatwa on his head–Elizabeth flew to Greece to bury her husband’s ashes on the island of Kardamyli, next door to a ruined Byzantine chapel lapped at by olive trees, wild garlic and wild geraniums.
One wishes the end of the “songline” had been more subversive. About almost everything else in a lifetime of running away from his country, his marriage and his sexuality, Chatwin was unorthodox, with “the nomad’s contempt for the pyramid.” Once, on an undulating “leopard-spotted” savannah, he had declared an altogether different faith: “For whenever I went back to that Africa, and saw a camel caravan, a view of white tents, or a single blue turban far off in the heat haze, I knew that, no matter what the Persians said, Paradise never was a garden but a waste of white thorns.”
Maybe he just liked smoky icons and singing monks. Maybe, with his legs paralyzed (“my little boys,” he called them), there was nowhere else to run. Maybe a mind so far gone as to imagine that the filmmaker Werner Herzog had healing powers and that the blood of a Nubian slave was a cure for AIDS, needed divine help. Or maybe God was the ultimate item to be purchased with a postdated check on his last crazy shopping spree, like the Bronze Age armband, the Assyrian quartz duck, the Han tortoise inkwell, the wax bozzetto of Neptune, a portable twelfth-century altar from Lausanne and a Tibetan tiger rug. All of a sudden, the nomad wanted to possess everything, as if he were an Utz.
Aesthete, vagabond, crackpot, fabulist, fugitive: Nicholas Shakespeare’s spellbinding biography allows us to hold all these Chatwins in kaleidoscopic focus simultaneously. In a Sotheby’s uniform of silk tie, slip-on shoes and a gray suit from Henry Poole on Savile Row, or a Lawrence of Arabia djellaba, or hiking shorts with knee socks (to cover up his varicose veins), or the shawl he claimed was Freud’s, babbling on about paleontology, John Donne and the influence of Simonides of Ceos on the memory techniques of Counter-Reformation Jesuits in China, he was a blue-eyed “compass without a needle,” a masked harlequin, “arch improviser, zany trickster, master of the volteface…Mr. Chameleon himself”–the talking animal as performance artist.
Shakespeare, whose career as a novelist Chatwin encouraged, had access to the moleskin notebooks and the widow’s good will. He spent almost a decade tracking the books across borders back to their author, from the black hills of Wales to the slave coast of Dahomey to the outback, the pampas and Prague. He’s chatted up everybody with a peppy opinion, from old friends, extant relatives, former lovers, testy scientists and resentful natives, to the luminary likes of Sybille Bedford, Roberto Calasso, James Ivory and Susan Sontag, plus of course Rushdie, who was amazed in Australia to find himself traveling with someone who talked more than he did. Like a shamus, Shakespeare puzzles missing pieces, pounces on aggrandizement and evasion, plugs holes in cover stories and stops to marvel at mean-street seediness (for instance, the S/M bathhouse/leather bar/Mapplethorpe scene in seventies New York). Like an epicure, he luxuriates past the point of wallow in so much wanton artiness (an Etruscan bronze! an Ingres interior! a Ngoro lacquer snuffbox! an Easter Island canoe paddle!). Like a therapist, he empathizes and exorcises (Bruce was in denial the way Napoleon was itchy). And like, of course, a novelist, he relishes every contradiction–hypochondrias and mythomanias; the longing to lose yourself in sand dunes but only after having gone horseback riding with Jacqueline Onassis in black goldpajama pants; the walkabouts and vanishing acts that circled round to home. (This “mother of all grasshoppers,” who desired men more than women and wrote his books in other people’s houses anywhere but England, ended up back with the wife who never divorced him because she was Catholic.)
Much is also made of the famous Chatwin style and photographic memory, that transfer of graphic ideas into words with “the exact skill of a botanist or a sniper,” seeking the prose equivalent of “the abstraction he admired in Sung dynasty painters, of flattened forms suspended in space with no suggestion of depth”–more like Daumier or the watercolors of Cézanne than Proust or Joyce; more Russian than English (Chekhov, Turgenev, Mandelstam, Babel, Bunin) and more French than Russian (Flaubert, Stendhal, Racine), with a dash of Hemingway’s Cubism and a chilly pinch of Ernst Jünger. Not for nothing, at his second-rate public school, did Bruce play the part of the Mayor in Gogol’s Government Inspector and of Mrs. Candour in School for Scandal. Nor for nothing, when his father couldn’t afford to send him to Oxford, did he apprentice at Sotheby’s among Netsuke carvings, Syrian limestone antelope reliefs and the usual Impressionists, before fleeing to Edinburgh, archeology and Sanskrit, somehow imagining he’d turn himself into, if not Malraux or Indiana Jones, at least a Howard Carter (discovering Tut’s tomb) or a Prosper Mérimée (inspecting monuments for the French admiralty). And certainly not for nothing did he serve a three-year stint as a roving correspondent for the Sunday Times Magazine, where he learned to write with clarity, for an audience, to a deadline–and from which he fled again, this time famously to Patagonia.
According to Rushdie: “He was very scared. He was telling stories to keep the Jungle Beast away, the false sabre-tooth, whatever it is. The Beast is the truth about himself. The great truth he’s keeping away is who he is.”
Yes, indeed. But I am trying to recall what it felt like to read his books without knowing who he was, to experience the exotic absence of an author from his own pages, to crack open the astonishing In Patagonia (1977) expecting yet another snotty English travelogue and discovering instead a “Wonder Voyage” that asked us to dream about not only penguins and gauchos but Caliban and Darwin, mobile gas ovens and a Lost City of the Caesars, giant sloths, slaughtered Indians and a carapace of “enormous armadillo…each scale of its armour looking like a Japanese chrysanthemum.” To venture next to The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), expecting a slave-trade novel and getting instead a sadomasochistic fantasy of horned vipers, bloody goats, severed heads and Amazons, a voodoo brew of imperialist porn and candomble trance-dancing. To continue, chastened, to On the Black Hill (1982) alert to sinister subtexts but flummoxed by a lot of Thomas Hardy sheep, dissenting preachers, an Industrial Revolution, class war, Euripides and the Book of Revelation, as well as what John Updike decided must be “a homosexual marriage” of 80-year-old twin brothers waiting for the arrival of a New Jerusalem. And none of this prepared me for The Songlines (1987), which is as close as he ever got to the geography in his own head–and even so, the man was missing.
In The Songlines, under a ghost-gum tree, attended by dingoes, bush devils and black cockatoos, Chatwin reinvented Australia. Hadn’t the Aboriginals specialized in his own sort of walkabout forever? Wasn’t all their vast interior a labyrinth of invisible pathways, “Dreaming Tracks” or “Song-lines”? Didn’t their creation myths tell of legendary totemic beings who wandered the continent in Dreamtime, singing out the names of Fire, Spider, Wind, Grass and Porcupine–and so summoning into existence the very world that would disappear if they didn’t hit the road with their own sacred tunes? It seemed to Chatwin that Australia was one big musical score, “a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys.” Not that he saw any of this on either visit. Rather, he willed it. According to Pam Bell, a poet who watched him in action: “He knew the mystery was there and he didn’t understand it. In The Songlines, he was desperately trying to go to the centre. It was the most important thing for him and he realized halfway through he wasn’t going to be able to do it. He was excluded. You have to earn mystery. It’s only lovers who get there.” Where he arrived after a couple of hundred pages was back at his notes for a nomad book he’d abandoned before he left for Patagonia. These notes, tacked on and italicized, are needy.
He needed ancient Greek and Hebrew, Old Norse, Old English and all of classical mythology to be gigantic songmaps too. He needed there to be a kinship between the songs of Aboriginals, the Gregorian chants of Catholic monks, the mantras of Tibetan lamas and the drumbeats of African shamans. He needed our origins to have been nomadic and pacific, grounded in the “voluntary graces” of food-sharing, gift-giving, song-singing and story-telling. He needed our development of weapons like fire to be defensive, after Homo erectus was menaced a million years ago on the open grasslands by a giant predator, dinofelis, the beastly Prince of Darkness whose dragon shadow haunts our unconscious to this day. And–because the whole point of our Big Brain is to sing us through the wilderness, and our central nervous system has a built-in “migratory drive” that makes us want to walk all day, and only when we’re “warped in conditions of settlement” do we seek “outlets in violence, greed, status-seeking or a mania for the new”–he needed agriculture to be a bad idea and cities even worse. The Noble Savage was Chatwin’s kind of guy.
Scientists who are really familiar with nomads tell us they’d just as soon stick around if only the animals let them, and actually like to hitch a ride. But even such wishful thinking–bickered about by competing ethnologists, paleontologists and other desert-crazed monomaniacs who dream our past on an Ice Age toenail or tooth–was still exhilarating to contemplate and also a good reason to leave town.
Except for those of us who prefer to find and lose ourselves in cities–whose idea of a vibrant culture depends a lot on politics, newspapers, movie houses, street lights and streetcars, labor unions and cobblestones, caffeine and maybe even cigarettes. For people like me, who never get out of Paris or St. Petersburg or Bombay or Istanbul, Noble Savagery is a good reason for Bruce to leave town, so the rest of us can read about it without having to. His last novel, Utz (1989), disappointed urban types because it was too much about basilisks and unicorn cups and too little about Prague, which he first visited in a fateful 1968.
But he wasn’t interested in politics. Other than Britain’s bully behavior in the Falklands, which he deplored in a radio talk with Italo Calvino, he seems never to have expressed a political opinion in all his forty-eight years–not about Argentina, Afghanistan, Situationists in Paris, Dubcek in Prague or even the property claims and citizenship rights of modern-day Aboriginals. Nor did gay rights concern him. “Bruce said he had no time for gay politics, or the gay community,” says a friend who lived with him in Rio; “and he abhorred the word ‘gay.’ ‘I’d much rather be called a bugger,’ and he roared with laughter.”
His ambivalence was his impetus. Sexually, Bruce was a polymorphous pervert. Think of the word ‘charming.’ Think of the word ‘seduction.’ Think of seduction as a driving force to conquer society…. He’s out to seduce everybody, it doesn’t matter if you are male, female, an ocelot or a tea cosy.
He slept with everyone, once: it goes with being a great beauty. His sexuality was like his possessions, a means of engaging and also of not engaging with the world. He was profoundly solitary and therefore conducted his sexual activity as a way of connecting with people. At such an industrial rate it meant not an exclusive or intensifying connection; it meant he had a connection. ‘I know this person because I’ve slept with him/her.’ It gave him the right to call someone next time he was in town
I never felt he was nearly as much a cruiser or sexually-obsessed person as most of my gang. But I think Bruce had a lot to hide. I think he liked danger. I always assumed he liked being violated in some way and preferably by brigands, gypsies, South American cowboys. It was part of his nomad pattern, to go off into the desert and get raped by Afghan brigands. It’s something Lady Hester Stanhope-ish. It wasn’t so much the sex as the sauce it came in, some Afghan chieftain draped in a cartridge belt.
Once upon a time, Chatwin confided to a friend, “You’ll never know how complicated it is to be bisexual.” And one reason we’ll never know is that he never told us. Another friend marvels, “Of all the talented brilliant writers, Bruce wrote the shortest sentences I’ve ever read.” Well, he was leaving out a lot. “In the complete works of Bruce Chatwin,” says Salman Rushdie, “there is not a loving fuck.” But there’s plenty of fancy footwork.
I am looking at his posthumously published collection of essays, What Am I Doing Here (1989). See him, in the erstwhile Soviet Union, going on about Constructivism. Or in Afghanistan, before it was ruined by Russians and hippies. Or in India, looking for wolfboys, disliking Indira. Or in Nepal, stinking of rancid yak butter, seeking the mythical yeti. Wherever, he meets interesting people, famous or supremely odd. Besides Diana Vreeland, André Malraux and Werner Herzog, there is the Chinese geomancer hired to approve the “dragonlines” of a brand-new Hong Kong bank. And the Englishman, investigating the activities of African Nazis in the late thirties, who is so excited by the idea of “black men in black shirts with red armbands and black swastikas.” Stranger still are the friends he makes, like Donald Evans, an American artist in Amsterdam who paints postage stamps for kingdoms of his own invention. Or the South African composer Kevin Volans, who adapts Stockhausen, insect sounds, Zulu guitar music, the chipping of stones and shouts of children for harpsichord and string quartet. And always–whether down the Volga, remembering Turgenev; or up an Everest, reading Dante; or on the pampas, reminded of Stonehenge and the Temple of Heaven, St. Peter’s and Red Square, Mecca and Versailles–the same old fierce disdain of cities and the impossibly romantic sympathy for icon-smashers and “anarchic peoples”; those “men of the fringe” who bedeviled Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt; Magyars and Mongols and wolf-masked Huns who rode out of the steppes and into his heart.
From Shakespeare, we know that Bruce near the end of his life talked this same Kevin Volans into composing an opera based on Rimbaud’s Une Saison en enfer, which he considered “a western Songline,” and that he’d wanted to play and sing the poet’s part himself. Had Bruce been gang-raped, like Rimbaud during the Paris Commune, like T.E. Lawrence by Turkish soldiers? He hinted so. Shakespeare isn’t sure. Maybe he just liked musicals. He had loved Hair so much, for instance, that he met with Galt McDermott proposing something similar about Ikhnaton, in which the sun-worshiping Pharaoh would uproot his court from Thebes and relocate to, of course, the nomadic Iraqi desert.
When Utz was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the satirical magazine Private Eye ran this playful description of what it called Tutsi-Frutsi by Bruce Hatpin:
Wry, evocative, sensitive account of a Viennese ice-cream collector who fills his cavernous flat in Marxist Prague with hundreds of different flavoured ice-creams. One day he wakes up and finds that they have all melted. As the Daily Telegraph commented: “Tutsi-Frutsi is a wry, evocative novella in which ice-cream collecting is used as a paradigm for man’s insatiable urge to eternalise the transient.” Cheekwin is of course best known for his award-winning cult novel Tramlines, which shows how the ancient Incas invented trams. An insatiable nomad, he lives in Notting Hill like everybody else.
Pretty funny. But from Shakespeare we now know everything there is to know, plus what we can’t, and more than enough to be sad. In addition to his weird fascination with such Nazi collaborators as Montherlant and Malaparte, and the fact that he once stole a young woman’s paperback copy of D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo, and those twenty-three years of marriage during which he never washed a single dish, and his lifelong partiality to a single work of art (a Peruvian wall hanging, probably for an Inca temple, of blue and yellow parrot feathers from a species of papagayo now extinct), we also know about his grandmother’s cabinet, his father the sailor, the Mickey Mouse gas mask, the Viking grave, the royal python, the low sperm count (“He can’t make babies so he eats them,” it was said of Ouidah’s Viceroy) and the Beziehungswahn, not to mention gold griffins, a throne of skulls, a tub of Crisco, the ecstasy pills and the lithium, Kaposi’s sarcoma and black urine.
We wind up with something daunting, as if Nabokov had set out to net a butterfly that was itself a Nabokov, all gaudy wings: a life that was its own secret work of art, an art with that life omitted, a biography that makes both of them more compelling and fosters the queasy feeling that all of us–Chatwin, Shakespeare and the reader too–are equally voyeurs. It was obviously too much to expect that he would tell the truth about his dying when he hadn’t told the truth about his living. To the dreadful end, he insisted on what García Márquez has called “the sacred right of the sick to die in peace along with the secret of their illness,” dissembling to close friends and his own parents, even exoticizing what he suffered from: It was, he claimed, a bone-marrow-eating fungus peculiar to South Asian bamboo rats he had picked up eating either a slice of raw Cantonese whale or a black egg on the Thai border. Or maybe an Indian amoeba in the bat feces of a Javanese cave he had stumbled into. Better yet, among Chinese peasants in western Yunnan, while he was tracing the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock, whose book on The Kingdom of the Na-Khi had been so much admired by Ezra Pound, perhaps…and so on, as if the deathbed were a proscenium arch.
OK, even if some overdue honesty might have helped dispel the hateful superstitions of the plague years, I am not so presumptuous as to instruct a stranger on how to die heroically. We didn’t know about Rock Hudson in advance, so why should we have known about Bruce Chatwin? Who says writers have a higher obligation than actors? Or politicians? Or Han tortoise inkwells and Easter Island canoe paddles? Tell it to your Christos Pantokrator.